Eagles defense showcases adaptability that could be its calling card

DETROIT -- First-year Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon has said on numerous occasions since taking the job that he doesn't have a scheme. What he means by that is he wants to tailor his system to fit the strength of his players while being malleable enough to attack the weaknesses of each opponent week-to-week.

That's a fine philosophy but was tough to identify in reality through most of the first seven games. Gannon ran a zone-heavy scheme focused on limiting big plays in the passing game. That meant he played both safeties deep (like way, way deep) and rarely blitzed. The soft coverage allowed quarterbacks to play pitch-and-catch underneath. The ball came out quickly as a result, neutralizing Philadelphia's pass rush, which was supposed to be one of the team's primary strengths. Gannon's passive approach put additional strain on an under-resourced linebacker corps and allowed opposing running backs to run wild.

Things had gotten pretty ugly. The Eagles had dropped five of six, yielding 30 points per game on average during that span while allowing the fourth-most rushing yards (133 yards per game) in the NFL through seven games. Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox twice aired his frustration over how he was being used. He was one of several players who had a legitimate gripe.

Sunday's 44-6 throttling of the Detroit Lions was not only the defense's best outing since Week 1 against the Atlanta Falcons, but offered evidence Gannon is beginning to align his words with his actions. He ratcheted up the heat on Jared Goff and tightened the coverage in the back end. The results? Philadelphia generated 19 pressures, 12 QB hits and six sacks while limiting Detroit to 58 yards rushing and 3.9 yards per play.

"I know he's been having to answer a lot of questions, we've had to answer a lot of questions," coach Nick Sirianni said of Gannon. "He went and did what we had to do to win that game. We put a little bit more pressure on them, and as you can see, we got to the quarterback a little bit more than what we have."

Philadelphia had blitzed 39 times through seven games, the second-fewest in the league, per ESPN Stats & Information. On Sunday, Gannon sent at least one extra rusher 10 times, resulting in five pressures and a pair of sacks, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.

The numbers suggest the defensive front had been doing well this year without the help. The Eagles are tops in the league in ESPN's pass rush win rate metric (54%). Yet the team is 19th in sacks per drop back (5.7%). That speaks to how quickly the opposing quarterback has been getting the ball out, in large part because of the Charmin-soft coverage. The Eagles have played the second-most zone defense in the NFL (73 percent) but deployed more man-to-man against Detroit, Sirianni said, while using more "match zone" when they went away from man to ensure tighter coverage.

"We changed it up a little bit, played a little bit of man, a little bit of everything. JG [Gannon] did a great job with the scheme," said cornerback Avonte Maddox, who had four tackles and a forced fumble in his return to his hometown of Detroit. "Whatever he calls, we trust in, and we go out there and dominate and do the best that we can."

It's unwise to make too much out of one game, especially when that game was against a now 0-8 Lions team. But it can at least be said that Gannon showed the adaptability he has touted since arriving in Philadelphia, helping move the Eagles to 3-5 as a result. And that's a start.